Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I am a single mother of a five-year-old autistic child. She has a tendency to scream unexpectedly when we are in public places. Just yesterday, she let out such a loud one in a department store that all within ear-shot stopped and stared. It can be so embarrassing. Do you recommend that I forgive my daughter under these painful circumstances?

Yours is a fascinating question because it raises a further question: What is the nature of wrong-doing. Let us first discuss that and then turn to your question. I want to examine the issue of wrong-doing first because forgiveness takes place in the context of another’s (or others’) wrong-doing. If we find no wrong-doing on the part of your daughter, then forgiveness would not be recommended.

For something to be morally wrong, we need to examine three issues: the act itself, one’s intentions in performing the act, and the circumstances surrounding the act.

The act itself of yelling out in a public place is not wrong when, for example, a person is being robbed. That circumstance of robbery makes the act of yelling good because it may prevent the wrong-doing of robbery. Thus, yelling in a public forum is not, by itself, an unjust act.

Your daughter’s intentions are not likely to be morally wrong. Given her autism, we can induce that she is not trying to cause trouble by embarrassing you or by harassing customers in the store. Her intentions are likely a response to something uncomfortable within her or it could be some kind of a conditioned response to something in the environment of which you are unaware. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that your daughter’s intentions are not morally wrong.

The circumstances, of being in a crowded store, do suggest decorum, but again we have to factor in the circumstance of your daughter’s autism. Her autism is likely to contribute to her behavior much more strongly than norms of conduct in public places.

When we examine the act itself, intentions, and circumstance, it is clear that your daughter has not engaged in wrong-doing. Thus, I would not recommend that you forgive. Instead, I recommend that you understand her action in the context discussed above. You might consider practicing acceptance (for now) of her actions that embarrass you (as you have stated). Further, you might take steps, through behavior modification techniques, to condition her behavior toward not yelling in public places by rewarding her for quieter behavior when in such places.

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What is the difference between letting go of your anger and forgiving a person?

When we forgive, we tend to let go of most or sometimes all of our anger. When we let go of our anger we do not necessarily forgive. For example, we can let go of anger and dismiss a person as unworthy of our respect or love. Forgiveness, on the other hand, strives to respect and love those who have hurt us. Forgiveness never condemns a person for an unjust act. At the same time, forgiveness does acknowledge unjust acts as wrong.

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When I was 16 I got pregnant to my 21 year old boyfriend and since the beginning my parents and family prohibited me to see him. I always had a grudge on them for being the reason my daughter ,now 3, doesn’t have a father figure in her life. I was previously under alot of emotional stress where I became suicidal and thank god I’m fine now but I still have that anger and grudge feeling, how can I her rid of it because I know that all they’ve done was be supportive but I don’t know how to forgive them.

First, I am sorry for your difficulties with your parents. This has been very hard on you. You are seeing that your parents and you have had different values regarding your seeing the father of your child. A key here is to see that both of you have good reasons for your decisions. In your case, you wanted your daughter to have a father. In your parents’ case, they wanted to protect you. Your decision to forgive them is a good one because, as you know, your intention to have a father for your daughter is an honorable intention.

This decision to forgive is courageous and it may take some time. We have a step-by-step process for forgiving that is described in my new book, The Forgiving Life. Because you are raising a child alone, I would like to send you a free copy of that book. If you feel comfortable doing so, please leave your mailing address with our director ( I will see to it personally that you receive the free copy of the book. As you read it, please ask questions here and we will help you.

Thank you for your courage.

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How do I know when and if I am forgiving? What does it feel like? I am a young woman from a normal (read: alcoholic, broken, etc.) family. Now, in times of stress, when I know I should forgive myself, or my partner, I feel only anger or numbness. I want peace, and I want to learn to forgive. Can you tell me where to start, and how i’ll know I’m forgiving? Thank you.

This is an important question. You will know that you have begun to forgive when you wish the other person well. This wishing-the-other-well may start as just a glimmer in your heart at first, but then it grows.

Anger is usually the place where forgiveness begins because when we forgive, we react to unfair treatment and our first reaction is likely to be anger or numbness, just as you describe. So, you are not alone in these feelings.

When you start a forgiveness process, please be aware that you are giving mercy to the one who hurt you. You are willing to get rid of resentment and to offer goodness of some kind to him or her. This takes time, so please be gentle with yourself.

As you continue to forgive, this idea of merciful goodness toward the one who was unfair builds and gives you a sense of hope and well-being. These feelings can be strong motivators to continue to forgive.

Do you have some sense of what forgiveness feels like? Please write again if you need more clarification.

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It seems to me that forgiveness is a good thing when someone has been really unfair to me. Yet, anger is a natural part of reacting to injustice. So, to forgive, does a person have to suppress anger? If so, then forgiveness seems like it is psychologically unhealthy.

When people forgive, the goal is to reduce or even eliminate the anger, not to suppress it. When we enter a forgiveness process, we look first at the anger, which is a way of acknowledging that anger, not suppressing it. Thus, when we forgive we acknowledge anger as a first step to reduce or even eliminate it. Forgiveness, then, is a healthy, not an unhealthy response.

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The Missing Piece to the Peace Puzzle